Agenda-setting, Twitter-style

TweetScoop graph the day President Clinton was hospitalized for chest pains in February 2010

I have to be one of the world’s worst tweeters. I’ll admit it. I’m totally sporadic with it and, even though I really don’t follow many people, compared with the most active Twitter users (and I truly think that all of the people that I’m following are totally interesting and cool), the stream moves so quickly that, since there are long stretches each day when I’m away from my computer (and, we’ve established, I can’t follow Twitter on my phone!), I somewhat randomly pop back in when I can, send out a tweet (usually links from my RSS feed), check my @melindaklewis messages (including retweets of my blog posts from some kind and generous souls!), and scan back through the most recent tweets, a practice which means that I inevitably miss a lot. I know that I’m far from Twitter best practices, but, with three kids 3 and under running around, it’s about the best I can manage.

That’s why I was glad to see some of Tamar Weinberg’s suggestions for Twitter in The New Community Rules, and to think through how Twitter can be used, in shorter bursts like the ones I can handle, for framing and issue strategy. Let me explain what I’m thinking here, and then share some of the tools that I learned from Tamar’s book and have since played around with, that I think could help with this.

We know that a big part of the framing battle requires figuring out how to talk about the issues that we want to advance in order to make them resonate with our targets and the general public. We know that winning this battle of ideas and words can make our proposed public policy solutions seem quite commonsense, and go a long way towards having those same policy ideas accepted. There are more than 75 million Twitter users worldwide, and more than 50 million tweets are sent each day. While an estimated 25% of these accounts are inactive, a lot of Twitter users are ‘influencers’, those whose ideas on issues are likely to change the way that others see those same issues. Figuring out what they’re talking about, and how, lets Twitter help you insert your issues into the broader public agenda. You could also use these tools to do an impact evaluation, of sorts, to see whether your work to elevate the profile and/or change the conversation around a certain issue has been successful, although, unless you’re doing a really nationwide campaign, you’d have a hard time being able to isolate your work and audience enough for that to be very accurate (those of you in bigger cities can set your location to find local trends and all of us can at least specify the U.S. as our location).

My favorite of these trending sites, and the one I use the most, is hashtags.org. You can search for any keyword (or combination–it helps if you use Twitter at least enough to know which hashtags are most commonly used for the issues you care about). For example, here’s what it shows for “public option”. You can search at particular points in time, and I found a really interesting spike right after President Obama announced his version of health care reform (on February 23, 2010). This application also gives you representative tweets sent that use this hashtag. The front screen also includes the top 10 or so hashtags, although, I’ll be honest, these are mostly celebrities or other references that I completely do not understand, leading me to believe that they relate to popular culture!

Another cool program, although you have to pay to get its most optimum features, is Tweetscan. It works similarly to the above, except they’ll actually email you alerts when the hashtags you’re watching crop up.

Twitter does its own analytics, of course, although, in my opinion, they’re not as helpful as some of the external applications. You can do real-time searches on Twitter, though, to see what’s trending–this is probably useful if your organization is in the news right now and you want to know what people are saying about it, but it doesn’t give you the time perspective that hashtags do (although they do search the body of the tweet, not just the hashtag, so this could be a good way of navigating the hashtags initially, if you’re not sure what they are).

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Twitscoop, which you can use as your Twitter landing page, to send tweets, track trends, and monitor urls, too.

Twitt(url)y–This tracks the top websites being tweeted, which, while not as helpful, in my opinion, as a keyword search, can give you a sense, on a given really hot topic, the particular sources or “takes” on an issue to which people are referring most, which gives you a sense of the most trusted sources/allies or, sometimes, your most potent adversaries. (Note: the link above takes you to the English filter; the first time I was on the site, it was off, and I couldn’t figure out why all of the top posts were in Chinese!)

For me, finding these tools has kind of restored my faith in Twitter, helping me to see that there are ways for it to be meaningful and relevant even if I’m not checking it from my smart phone all the time. It helps me to get a sense of the pulse of the conversation (and a surprisingly high percentage of that conversation does deal with public policy!), and, you know, sometimes I even learn who this Justin Bieber is that my cousin Molly kept talking about.

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